January 19, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman issued orders for his Federal troops to start moving north, out of Savannah and into South Carolina.
Sherman’s force consisted of two armies and a cavalry division, numbering about 60,000 men:
- Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Army of Georgia, which mainly occupied Savannah, included XIV and XX corps under Major Generals Jefferson C. Davis and Alpheus Williams respectively.
- Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, which had already begun moving up the coast, included XV and XVII corps under Major Generals John A. Logan and Francis P. Blair, Jr. respectively.
- The cavalry, led by Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick, occupied Robertsville.
Slocum turned over occupation duty in Savannah to Major General John G. Foster’s Department of the South on the 18th, and then moved to join Howard’s forces near the South Carolina state line. Sherman planned to march northward in two wings:
- The right wing (Howard) would advance up the Atlantic coast, then move inland to capture Pocotaligo on the railroad between Savannah and Charleston.
- The left wing (Slocum) would move up the Savannah River’s west bank, feinting an advance on Augusta.
Sherman directed Howard, “Break up railroad at leisure and either send away the iron or disable it absolutely… accumulate food and forage at Pocotaligo and establish a depot at Hilton Head.” Howard ordered Blair to collect all available railcars at Pocotaligo “and there pile them up for future use.” If this was not possible, “you will please go on and destroy the road as indicated in the order.” In Slocum’s wing, Davis was to move toward Springfield and cross the Savannah River at Sister’s Ferry, while Williams occupied Purysburg.
The troops were in high spirits, eager to invade South Carolina since it had been the first state to secede. It was generally assumed that the Federals would ravage this state more than they did Georgia. The initial objective would be the state capital of Columbia. Sherman later wrote:
“Of course, I gave out with some ostentation, especially among the rebels, that we were going to Charleston or Augusta; but I had long before made up my mind to waste no time on either, further than to play off on their fears, thus to retain for their protection a force of the enemy which would otherwise concentrate in our front, and make the passage of some of the great rivers that crossed our route more difficult and bloody.”
The Confederate high command fell for Sherman’s deception and planned for an attack on either the important port city of Charleston or the vital supply center at Augusta. Major General D.H. Hill was sent to take over the small militia force guarding Augusta; Secretary of War James A. Seddon ordered him to arrange “the removal of cotton, whether of the Government or of private individuals, from Augusta. To promote removal and to be prepared for contingencies, make preparations to burn whatever cotton may be in the city in event of its evacuation or capture. It must not fall into the hands of the enemy.”
At the same time, a Federal prisoner told his captors that his comrades “have in the main the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Army Corps; that Sherman is in Beaufort and the whole force will be over in a few days; that part of Sherman’s army is marching from Savannah and thinks part of it has already arrived at Coosawhatchie; thinks Sherman is aiming for Charleston direct.”
Major General Lafayette McLaws, commanding the Confederate division holding defenses outside Charleston, reported on the 21st–
“… that yesterday two divisions of the Seventeenth Army Corps, the First and Fourth, marched out from Pocotaligo with two days’ rations and sixty rounds of ammunition, and came down to the river with a large pioneer force, stopping at a place called Blountville until 10 o’clock last night, when they returned to Pocotaligo. I think they returned because the waters were rising and because they heard the cheers of our troops. I regret to add that my troops fired upon each other in the swamp, the mistake being caused by the nature of the country in which they were operating.”
According to McLaws, reports indicated that Federals “are taking up the iron from the railroad between the Salkehatchie and Pocotaligo Station.” Major General Joseph Wheeler, commanding the Confederate cavalry, submitted his scouting report:
“A citizen who was a prisoner at Hardeeville on the 19th thought that there was at least a corps at Hardeeville, and said that he had heard drums in the direction of Purysburg, but was unable to learn from the enemy the name of the commanding general or the corps. He saw little cavalry, but large crowds of infantry; could hear nothing of any crossing the Savannah River. Had heard nothing of any boats coming as high up as Purysburg.”
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army under siege at Petersburg, Virginia, reluctantly detached Brigadier General Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry troopers without their horses to reinforce their fellow South Carolinians. Lee made it clear that detaching this division was “with the understanding that it is to return to me in the spring in time for the opening of the campaign.”
Slocum’s men began moving out of Savannah on the 20th, but heavy rain made the dirt roads nearly impassable, and the Federal advance slowed to a crawl over the next two weeks. During that time, Sherman transferred his headquarters from Savannah to Beaufort.
Sherman ignored War Department orders to force Confederate sympathizers out of Savannah before leaving. Even so, Foster’s occupation force deported many families with Confederate ties, a bitterness compounded by the arrival of three black regiments to rule over the city. A week later, a large fire swept through Savannah, destroying about 200 homes and leaving Federals and Confederates to blame each other for the destruction.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 519-20; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 15923-43; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 545; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 626-27; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 160-61; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 445